Great-Aunt Gertie and the 1939 Expo

Ellen Kaye is the coauthor of "The Wine Guy." Her work has also been published in the New York Times and CHOW magazine.

“Miss Gertrude Kaiser, who is not only a native daughter (and proud of it) but the daughter of a native daughter, arrived in our editorial sanctum on Women’s Day, Sept. 18, in a high state of dudgeon. She thrust under our nose a clipping from a city daily claiming as how a Fresno woman had some sort of a record for seeing our Fair 65 times. Miss Kaiser fairly snorted at such a low down, lazy attendance. Said she: ‘I’VE been to this fair 105 times this year and by the time it’s over (12 more days) I shall have been here for my 117th visit. I consider it a privilege to attend the Exposition. Wherever the eye turns there is loveliness and grandeur.’” (Ed. -- Can anyone challenge Miss Kaiser’s record? If anyone does, we’ll bet she’ll be pretty mad.)

--Treasure Island News, Sept. 27, 1940

I had always been told that my Great-Aunt Gertie was sort of eccentric. (I believe “nuts” was the word I heard most often.) She was long dead, and I had never met her, so I had to rely on the impressions of others. That is, until a few months ago, when I opened the box.

It had been gathering dust in my apartment since it had arrived from San Francisco, shipped to myself, by myself, following the heavy-hearted day four years ago when my siblings and I hastily divvied up my deceased uncle’s possessions. The yellowed article from the Treasure Island News was tucked away between a batch of sepia studio portraits, which followed Gertie as she grew from forlorn toddler to dour spinster, and a deed for a single plot at Cypress Lawn, purchased by a 58-year-old Gertie in 1937, some 30-odd years before her death.


So maybe the article was confirmation that she was a nut. But at least she seemed to be an interesting nut. I had to know more. I called my brother in Marin, and a week later I had my hands on Gertie’s day-by-day account of her record-breaking excursions to the fair.

Built to commemorate the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, the Golden Gate International Exposition drew millions of visitors during its 1939 and 1940 runs, each visitor recorded on the giant cash register that dominated the Central Square of the fair. To its left, the magnificent statue of Pacifica loomed over the Court of the Seven Seas, like a benevolent goddess beckoning the public into a make-believe world where all men were brothers, all lands beautiful and fascinating, and where the West was, by far, the best.

The winds have banished the clouds in promise of a golden day to bless the birth of the exposition, when the Phoenix claps its wings and hails the opening of the Pacific Pageant to the pressing throng. The sirens call, the bells clang a chorus of welcome to the Fair and I am off to Treasure Island, Gertie wrote on Feb. 18, 1939. Over the course of the fair’s combined 12-month duration, she’d spend 277 days strolling among the crowds along the Court of the Moon, through the Vacationland Building and past the Cavalcade of the Golden West, with its live pageant celebrating four centuries of Manifest Destiny, complete with conquistadors, stagecoaches, steam engines, Indians on horseback and a curtain made of 2,500 jets of water, sparkling with colored lights.

Only inclement weather, religious holidays, her late mother’s birthday or an occasional game of mah-jongg could keep Gertie from claiming her usual seat to hear Goldman’s marching band in the Court of Honor, from getting her free coffee at the El Salvador pavilion or from visiting Willie Vocalite, the talking, smoking electronic robot who lived in the Westinghouse exhibit.


These were hard and anxious times. As the fair got underway, 17% of Americans were unemployed. Madison Square Garden had just housed a huge Nazi rally, and Fascist cells were reportedly popping up all over the country. During that summer, Hitler and Stalin were busy dividing Eastern Europe among themselves, and the last remaining Jewish businesses in Germany were being forced to close. Great Britain and France were getting ready to declare war on Germany. By fall, Roosevelt was being urged to hurry up with the development of the atomic bomb. And day after day, my Aunt Gertie pinned on her henna hat and laced up her sensible shoes to join the throngs clambering aboard the ferry, eager to bury their heads in the silt of the 400-acre paddy dredged from the bay to house the Pageant of the Pacific. There they would be blissfully blinded by a Neverland of flowering trees and sumptuous gardens, majestic statues, romantic pavilions, shimmering pools and prancing fountains.

Everyone she knew seemed to hang out at the fair. Met Alice and Lottie Kaufman by accident on the boat. Then to Goldmans Band where I met Mr. Cerf by accident. Sometimes Gertie and her friends used the fair as a place to entertain. Eda Ickelheimer invited me for dinner at Maxwell’s Coffee House. . . . I invited Fanny for scones. . . . Then to the Owl for lunch--my treat, then Folies Bergere, my treat. . . . Lunch at Yerba Buena Club, everything you can think of in food, buffets. Did not care for that style of luncheon. Must serve yourself and all look on your plate to see what you have taken. Occasionally she’d even strike up a conversation with a total stranger. In Latin Quarter spoke to Mr. and Mrs. Barber of Fresno. He is a lawyer, very fine people. . . . In Festival Hall were three little boys. One went out to get a “coke” and he brought me back a bottle. A sweet and kind attention. I insisted he take the nickel for it from me and then I gave each five cents for the good deed. . . . On the boat met a French lady, very intelligent and agreeable, from El Paso Texas.

But most of the time Gertie was alone, gazing at her own watery image in the Court of Reflections, silently admiring the Pink Pearl rhododendrons in the Court of Flowers (what a sight!) and, come nightfall, waiting for the illuminations (fairyland!) before boarding the ferry back to the city.

Did she look to the fair as a refuge from a world on the brink? If that was the case, she wasn’t admitting it. There’s hardly one mention of anywhere beyond the San Francisco city limits in her diary. Here’s her entry on June 5, the day that 937 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Lewis were denied permission to land in Florida and sent back, many to die in Nazi concentration camps: My 60th anniversary to the Exposition. Visited the Fuller Glass Co. Also saw a meteor composed of iron and copper, which was dug up from the earth in the Homes & Gardens Bldg. And the very day Hitler was reviewing a timetable for the invasion of Poland? I went to Administration Bldg for one hundred more tickets. A lovely day.


Was it flight from the isolation of an old maid’s life? Possibly. Aunt Gertie lived alone, estranged from the rest of the family, the result of her tenacity in an inheritance battle years before. But I can only guess at what her normal existence was like, as there are no entries in her 1939 diary (a spiral-bound faux-leather freebie courtesy of the Fidelity and Deposit Co.) prior to opening day on Treasure Island. And every page following her handwritten “Finis” on Oct. 29, the day the exposition ended in 1939, is blank. If a diary exists for her 1940 forays, we haven’t found it.

Or was it something else, something that’s not in her diary, that compelled her to return to the island oasis again and again? Maybe even something she wouldn’t dare put down in words?

Personally, I like to imagine Gertie dabbing at the corners of her mouth after lunch at the White Star Tuna Restaurant, furtively checking over each shoulder before ducking across La Plaza and into the Gayway, past Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Paris After Midnight, Virgins in Cellophane, DuBarrys on the Half Shell and the famous “breathing” painting, Stella. I see her pausing to greet the munchkin police chief of the Midget City, cooing at the window of Incubator, Babies Inc. (“Living babies in modern hospital!”), and shaking a cynical head at the Headless Girl (“She’s alive!”).

She’d turn a deaf ear to the Hum-a-Tune sellers, and she’d rush past the man promising to guess her weight for a quarter. There’s no way she’d want her 168-pound heft broadcast to the public. Then she’d arrive, out of breath, at the ticket booth of Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, where she’d plop down a quarter for the privilege of peering through the glass at a living tableau of girls playing badminton, twirling lariats, riding burros and pitching horseshoes, dressed in 10-gallon hats, bandanas, cowboy boots and nothing else. Who knows? Perhaps she returned day after day just for that, her heart held prisoner by one of the lovely Ranchettes.


But it was more likely a crush on Mr. Goldman, the bandleader, that kept Gertie in the fair’s thrall. She found his music most delightful, grand, divine, be it Strauss’ “Persian March,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble-Bee” or Rachmaninoff’s “Italian Polka.” She made almost daily notations of her observations from afar: Mr. Goldman is not only a splendid director but with a heart of kindness, plus brains. Finally she got up the courage to have a word with the man behind the baton. Spoke to him telling of my 60th visit. He shook hands with me and thanked me for attending. Very easy to speak to. Then she apparently started writing him notes. I am truly grateful for the many enjoyable hours I spent hearing the Goldman Band, with the hope the years will bring the best of everything to you all. The Lady with the white hat in the second row on the side you enter. (Me.)

When his run at the fair ended on July 1, Gertie was bereft. Returned for Goldman’s last concert, for the last number the audience stood, a tribute to Goldman, and he waved his handkerchief and said au-revoir but not good bye, quite sad. The following Monday found Benny Goodman at the Temple Compound. The swing band brought more people than Goldman attracted during his entire engagement. Well, I do not know if all those people are right and I wrong. However I do not like the Goodman swing music anyhow. The next day Gertie attended a lecture in the Shasta Cascade Building. Very interesting, all about plants (one fed on meat!) Then to B. Goodman’s Band. Over 100,000 people in two days. Can 100,000 be right--and I wrong? Terrible. Not music, but loud sounds. On Thursday? Passed by Goodman’s Band. Still terrible. And by Saturday? Passed by Goodman’s Band. Not so many people.

Things at the Temple Compound hadn’t improved much by October, at least not for Gertie. Count Basie and his Band. Terrible. And it wasn’t just the rhythms of modern music that offended her sensibilities. At Open Air Hall saw children in a contest eating watermelon and pies. Not very pleasant to look at. One child had a seed in her throat. . . . Two men in cheap clothes showed their strength holding each other up, balancing on their heads. . . . At the Fine Arts building--the prize picture, and I think the world’s worst. Apples. I had to be told they were apples. And when a nightmare from her past intruded on her fantasyland? Saw part of a movie of San Francisco quake and fire. I spoke to the lady at information desk and said that picture should not be shown.

I suppose there may be a simple answer to the question of why Aunt Gertie spent so much time at the fair: Why not? At one point in my life I spent a lot of time fantasizing about living in Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth. (Of course, I was 6, not 60.) We can all be found guilty of seeking some form of escapism, though today we’re likely to be burying our heads in more personal pleasure palaces courtesy of iPods, BlackBerrys, TiVos, cellphones. The Gayway has made way for the video game. And who needs Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch when hard-core porn is just a click away? And all this thanks to technology not even imagined in the GE House of Magic in 1939.


I think I prefer Gertie’s route: 277 days mingling in the fresh air and sunshine, 277 days sharing in the wonders of art, nature and science, 277 days exploring the traditions of exotic (yet friendly) cultures, 277 days of outdoor concerts, (not to mention the chance to frequent a 1,000-pound fruitcake and a miniature redwood forest). Nuts? I think it may be time to revise the family lore.


By the Numbers:

The exposition covered a total of:


403 acres

Revenue generated (for Bay Area):

$100 million

Price of one-day adult admission:


50 cents

Record daily attendance:


Total number of benches:



Price of official guidebook:

25 cents